EVANSVILLE (383 alt., 121,582 pop., 342,815 metropolitan pop.), seat of Vanderburgh County, is a link between the unhurried Old South and the bustling, industrial North. Still an important avenue for commerce, the romantic Ohio River recalls the great days of steamboat traffic, when Evansville was a prominent port of call. Located at the mouth of Pigeon Creek, halfway between the falls of the Ohio and the river's mouth, the town has one of the best harbors on inland waterways. For many years it was a vital link between Northern farmers and the markets of the South, and even now the impressive volume of its river freight and its busy water front give Evansville the characteristic atmosphere of a river town. The bordering horse country adds an air of easy leisure. In August the business and industry of Evansville continue almost automatically, while attention focuses on running horses at the Dade Park race course southeast of town.
The city, fifth largest in Indiana and largest on the Ohio River west of Louisville, covers 11 square miles of land -- level except for a number of hills in the northwest section. The romance of the old steamboat days, however, is recalled only by Sunday excursion boats and an occasional showboat making its way down the river from Pittsburgh.
The center of Evansville's business district is on Main Street for about 10 blocks back from the river. A second mercantile area is on West Franklin Street (the only through east-and-west street), across the Pigeon Creek Bridge. Streets in the city's comparatively small downtown section run northwest to southeast and southwest to northeast, parallel and at right angles to the northeast segment of the horseshoe curve of the river. This was the original Evansville. As the city grew, later streets were laid out north-south and east-west.
The city's importance as a transportation center contributed to the rise of industry early in its history. Major products are auto bodies, steam and electric shovels and cranes, electric and gas refrigerators, tools, electric headlights, infant foods, glass bottles, grain products, clothing, textiles, beer, and cigars.
Evansville's location on the Ohio made it easy for wandering theatrical troupes to give occasional performances even in the early frontier period. In 1852 the first theater, Mozart Hall, was built and the showboat period of the 1880's (see Music and the Theater) brought added theatrical importance to the town. In recent years, in addition to performances by road companies, theater-goers have enjoyed the productions of the Community Players, an amateur company that gives several plays annually. Concerts are given by the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra. Among its outstanding natives the town is proud of Marilyn Miller, Joe Cook, and Louise Dresser, stage celebrities.
When in 1812 Colonel Hugh McGary built his cabin on a spot that became the foot of Main Street, he had no plan to found a town. In the days when he lived west of Princeton, it occurred to him that if he were to live at this U-bend of the river -- some 30 miles to the south of his old home -- it would be simpler for him to visit his wife's relatives in Henderson (then Red Banks), Kentucky. He started a ferry at this point, which became known as McGary's Ferry. In 1814 the growing village was made the seat of the new county of Warrick.
Almost immediately after its selection as county seat, the village lost the honor and seemed about to dwindle away when McGary enlisted the aid of General Robert Evans and James W. Jones. In 1818 he sold the section above Main Street to General Evans and the town was replatted. In the same year, to settle a three-cornered political controversy, Warrick County was divided into three counties. McGary's and Evans's town was named Evansville and made seat of the newly created Vanderburgh County. A brick courthouse was built.
The population, 200 in 1819, when the town was incorporated, grew with the migration westward by flatboat. Usually several flatboats traveled together with a frontiersman as guide and navigator. These 'western boatmen,' as the guides were called, were usually tall and thin, sinewy and capable of unbelievable endurance under hardship. Among their accomplishments was a precise accuracy with tobacco juice, many being exact at a range of 15 feet.
In Evansville and similar Ohio River towns, flatboat operators traded powder, lead, salt, and flints for pork, venison, hams, skins, fur, and other products of the region. They carried the new cargo to New Orleans where they sold it, together with the lumber of which their boats were made, making the return trip afoot or on horseback.
The coming of the steamboat opened a golden age for Evansville. The Robert Fulton, first steamboat to ply the Ohio River, appeared in 1809, but more than a decade passed before this form of transportation was accepted as practicable. Early steamboats were remarkable for their noise and slowness. Flatboaters often walked along the banks from Natchez to Evansville and made the trip in as short a time as did the steamboats. By 1822, however, the steamboats had cut the time for the trip to New Orleans to 7 days from the 30 required for flatboats, and made the upstream trip, New Orleans to Evansville, in 16 days instead of 90. As the river schedules improved, increasing quantities of goods were shipped by boat, and by 1854 the Ohio River was the 'grand avenue of prosperity for the thriving town of Evansville.'
But with all its natural advantages the city did not escape troubles. It suffered losses in the financial depression of 1824-9, and the coincident epidemic of milk sickness took its toll. (When Dr. William Trafton, an Evansville physician, discovered a cure for this malady during the epidemic, he won Nation-wide prominence.) Cold weather added to the city's troubles in the winter of 1831-2, when the river froze to a depth of 22 inches, crippling business by stopping river traffic. With spring came the first of Evansville's four disastrous floods, making an island of the village for a time. In the summer 391 persons died in an epidemic of cholera.
To crown misery with disillusionment, Colonel Hugh McGary, patriarch of the town, was charged in 1832 with horse stealing. When arrested for riding an animal said to have been stolen, he explained that he had traded with a relative for it. He was not prosecuted, but community whispering forced him to leave town.
Meanwhile, in 1828 several shops for blacksmiths, hatters, and cobblers were established, and as Evansville grew, sawmills were erected on Pigeon Creek to supply heavy timbers for shipbuilding and fuel for steamboats. In 1836 the Mammoth Internal Improvement Bill, which named Evansville as southern terminus of the Wabash & Erie Canal, brought new immigration. Real-estate prices collapsed in the financial depression of that year, however, and the period until 1844 was a lean one. Recovery began to be felt in 1844 and 1845. In 1848, when its population had grown to 4,000 and its area to 230 acres, Evansville was chartered as a city. The legislature authorized completion of the canal, construction of which had been halted by the depression; several flour mills and foundries, a furniture factory, two wharf boat plants, and new sawmills were established on the strength of anticipated canal trade.
But at almost the same time that the first canalboat from Petersburg arrived in April 1853, the first railroad train arrived from Princeton. The last boat came through the canal to Evansville in 1860. River traffic, which today is wholly confined to freight shipments, declined appreciably with the development of the railways.
Although the canal was a failure financially, its construction greatly helped the development of Evansville. Because of it, the population grew and manufacturing was stimulated; even before the Civil War the city had become a factory center as well as a shipping point for southwestern Indiana. After the war this industrial growth continued. With craftsmen from Europe attracted by foundries and woodworking factories, the population jumped to 50,756 by 1890, despite a second inundation by the river in 1884. In the early 1900's furniture factories, a number of stove foundries, and a buggy factory were established.